Mass Effect 3 – E3 Preview

If there was one booth that people were turned away from at this year’s E3 Expo more than any other, it was the little white door just to the left of EA’s largest central screen, as access was for people with media badges only and I was one of the lucky few. Stepping through the innocent looking white door was like stepping onto the deck of the Normandy; the silver walls arched over at the top and windows looking out into space lit one side. We weren’t here to look at the room though; Mass Effect’s Producer Casey Hudson stood next to a giant screen and wanted to show me a small glimpse of his latest story, “a story that is as big as we can possibly tell” as he calls it.

Just to bring anybody who has been living in a cave up to speed, Mass Effect is a sci-fi adventure with many smaller plot lines and varying outcomes, but its over-arching story is one of an invasion by a race of alien machines known as the Reapers, who are coming to harvest all life in the galaxy. In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers have now reached Earth after laying waste to most of the galaxy and it’s your job as Commander Shepard to rally the survivors and save what is left of Earth. Casey was keen to stress that although this is the final part of the trilogy it is also “the best place to jump in because it’s the beginning of the biggest events of the Mass Effect series, and it’s also going to be the best game in the series”. I’ll be honest, I don’t agree with him; to fully appreciate Mass Effect you need to play it from the beginning. I think he’s saying that if you haven’t played the others in the series, don’t feel put off Mass Effect 3 by not having played them, as it will still be a great game regardless.

Casey starts our demo with a section of the game that any Mass Effect 3 fans may have already seen, with a fleet of ships overhead including the Normandy and some familiar faces such as Legion and Garrus lending their support it takes place during a mission where Commander Shepard is trying to destroy a Reaper base. This section of the demo hits the ground running with Shepard running towards a huge blast door set in the ground, making short work of a handful of Cerberus troops with a gun that looks quite similar to the M-96 Mattock (my personal favourite from Mass Effect 2) and Shepard’s new mêlée weapon, the Omni-Blade along the way. Once the blast door is open, Shepard uses a target designator to call in the Normandy from orbit and drop a bomb down the hole and, despite being warned to take cover, Shepard decides to stand and watch as the Normandy comes swooping in with the resulting explosion knocking him from the platform and down a level. Turns out the Reaper base was a little more than that, and as Shepard picks himself up, a live and undoubtedly pissed off Reaper emerges from the hole. As in all good sci-fi, enemies start to run towards an explosion and your location; this was the moment for me where Mass Effect 3’s scale really kicked in, as up until this point the game still looked very much like another Mass Effect (not a bad thing).

Cerberus troops rush towards you as a fire fight ensues while around you that Reaper who was just rudely awoken is pulling itself out of its hole, its huge metallic violet limbs slamming down around you as bits of concrete splinter from the walls falling to the ground. Legion and Garrus show up in an acquired Geth shuttle with a gun turret mounted to the top just as Liara follows up from behind and the team make good their escape as the hulking Reaper tries its best to blow the crap out of them.  Now here’s a question for you: how many of you have all of those team members left alive? I know people that lost at least two of those three; will those squad members be replaced for them? If so, who with? At the end of the presentation, and on the way out, I quickly asked Casey this as I said thank you, but he wasn’t giving anything up – he just smiled and shook his head. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect an answer but felt like I had to ask.

After the first section of our preview, Casey goes on to explain that the scale of the conflict is enormous but how we choose to fight it is up to us. Bioware have built a lot of features into Mass Effect since the start of the series which allow you to really blend gameplay styles; you can be tactical by making the most of the cover system and your team mates, you can be stealthy if you wish making the most of the short range weapons and mêlée attacks or if your that way inclined you can just run and gun. In the next section of our preview Shepard is trying to rescue one of the galaxy’s rarest creatures, a female Krogan, which is hoped will bring a degree of peace between the Krogans and Turians. “Containment shield is holding can’t speak for Krogans health however” ah it’s good to hear our old breathless friend Mordin’s voice “I’m fine Commander” says the female Krogan “females kept secret possibly a mole in STG could be indoctrinated with no Krogan alliance with Turians Reapers left unchallenged”. Mordin then asks you to meet him at the next checkpoint higher up the building and warns us Cerberus are likely to drop as he activates the cargo elevator him and the Krogan female are in, which they do just seconds after he mentions them, and a fire fight starts. The combat itself hasn’t altered much since Mass Effect 2; I did notice a new UI for the player when in cover that provides you with on-screen arrows indicating which way around various cover you can go, be it over the top of crates or shifting from one side of a doorway to another. A gravelly voice comes over the radio as an alliance shuttle whizzes past over head “Shepard get cracking, Salarians are taking a beating, get the female out of there or it’s all over” it was Wrex, another of my favourites from the series, but one that a lot of my friends let Ashley shoot in the face. For those who lost him, would he be replaced? For now, BioWare aren’t saying.

A comment is passed by Liara “Cerbrus just don’t quit do they?” Shepard replies with “they’re indoctrinated, they are capable of anything” which explains why Cerberus have started to actively seek out and attack Shepard but as to the how and why the Reapers have taken control of Cerberus’s forces, I don’t know. Casey’s point to showing us this new section of the game was more to show off some of the combat and cover system’s finer points like Shepard’s new found roll ability that allows you to move around the battlefield faster and more stealthily, and of course the new weapons such as the Omni-Blade and grenades. Right on cue, another wave of Cerberus troops show up sporting new shields, well kind of new. Technically, from Mass Effect’s point of view, it was old technology. These weren’t fancy biotec shields which needed to be taken down with a clever combination of your team’s abilities, the clever boys in Cerberus’ R&D labs decided that the most effective way to stop a bullet is by lumping around a huge sheet of steel. They never gave much thought to the rest of the design though, as the back of the soldiers remained unguarded, and all it took was a good arm combined with a grenade or Liara’s lift ability along with a few rounds to the face to take them out. Shortly after this we’re given a break from the battle and drop by a workbench to be shown the new way we can customise our weapons.

As soon as the words left Casey’s mouth I feared for a return to the first Mass Effect’s upgrade system which was far too time consuming and fiddly; thankfully though, it wasn’t and the new system lets you customise many aspects of your weapons which have both physical and statistical effects to your guns. These add-ons for you weapons can either be bought or found as you progress through the game, Casey briefly touches on a point that this new upgrade system will also be available for customising your armour and gear but didn’t show it in action. What we did get to see was the new character customisation, which is now much more in-depth and allows the player to drill down into the finer points of each ability and customise them even further, branching out into many different talents.

As Mordin’s cargo elevator reaches its final checkpoint, the customary big battle kicks off with waves of Cerberus troops heading towards you both on foot and in one of the game’s new vehicles, the Atlas; think big walking mech suit and you’re there. Just as I start to think that’s it for the demo, Casey then starts to show us a section from earlier in the game showcasing how the story will play out. It’s a little bit spoiler-ish so I won’t go into any names of characters or too much detail, but Shepard is on Earth awaiting trial for crimes committed during the events of Mass Effect 2. We join the action just as the Reapers have started to attack Earth and Shepard is let out of his cell by an old friend. The building we are in shakes every so often with the thud of the Reapers laying waste to the city outside. Shepard needs to get out of here and to the Normandy, and along the way we come across a small child hiding in an air vent. Casey interrupts the gameplay to remind us that in Mass Effect 3 the stakes are high and even the smallest decision can have powerful consequences. The conversation plays out where ultimately a choice is made (I won’t say which), and we press on. Remember that sense of scale I mentioned with the pissed of Reaper during first part of the preview? Well that was nothing in comparison to what was behind the doors leading outside. As Shepard pries open the damaged door, we are treated to a look out over a bright futuristic city where Reapers are laying waste to everything in their path, skyscrapers are being pushed over like they were made of cardboard and the ground is being scorched with energy weapons while shuttles and fighter craft dog fight it out above us. It was one of the biggest vistas I have ever seen in a game; the city was over to the right and then the camera panned around to the left, over the bay and mountain range in the far distance, all of it busy with destruction and gunfire – it felt huge.

As Shepard fights his way through the battle, the action around us never lets up and continues right up to the point where we make it to the Normandy. The consequences of the decision we made earlier involving the small boy played out and while I won’t say what it was it is a true testament to BioWare’s skill when I say that only Mass Effect 3 can leave you open mouthed in awe, make you feel the weight of the galaxy and have you laughing with old friends before almost bringing you to tears in the space of ten minutes.

It’s strange to think that four years ago I started a story which, for me, will probably be the one that defines this console generation. A story that has become so personal to me and anybody else who plays it, that I refuse to give it the perfect playthrough. The decisions I made, be they right or wrong, were the ones I made: I saved the Rachni, left the council to fend for themselves, slept with a blue alien chick and lost half my crew. It’s those, and countless other choices both big and small, which define Mass Effect and make the game what it is for so many of us. To its players, Mass Effect 3 will be more than just the final chapter of a story. It’s the final chapter of their story.

Mass Effect 3 is currently slated for an early March 2012 release.

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  1. Ben Ben says:

    Looked breath taking in every aspect. Thinking of starting the first Mass Effect again to try and get myself a good play through going as I moved from console to PC when the second game came out, bugger.

  2. Samuel Samuel says:

    I was a bit reluctant to look at this after you and Ben shamelessly spoiled the beginning of the game on one of the E3 podcasts when I’d so far managed to avoid story details (you bastards), but your Twitter link said it was spoiler free, and here I am.

    I’m really looking forwards to this game. It looks stunning, but I’ve been sold on it since the very first game came out anyway, since they’ve always said it would be a trilogy. My collector’s edition N7 set is already preordered.

    I LIKED the fiddly customisation screens from the first Mass Effect. But any sort of customisation of weapons and armour will be good after the feature was entirely axed from ME2. I agree with you too about the need to play the other two games. It’d be like watching Return of the Jedi without seeing Star Wars and Empire. Ridiculous.

  3. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    This is just a quick reply as I’ve not had the time to actually read these articles outwith editing them… but I second what Ben just said. Watching the presentation for this made me want to actually give Mass Effect another shot even though I didn’t take to it first time around. What a difference a day few years makes, eh?

  4. Chris Toffer says:

    Just finished Mass Effect 2 and I’d like to echo what Lee has said. The story is personal to me. Were all playing the same game but each is so different. I saved all my crew members, but I doubt they will finish the third game with all of them alive, just due to the scale of what’s going on, and that’s the way it should be.

    I’m doing another playthrough and will be making different choices, not necessarily because I choose to, but because my first game experience was so different, I have little choice to

  5. Edward Edward says:

    The weird thing for me is that while I didn’t like Mass Effect 1 all that much, I fell in love with 2 by the end of it and it was one of my favourite experiences of the generation. It’s weird for me that there was so much difference between the games that I don’t feel I could go back to the first one and undo a lot of the decisions I made without thinking (though I do have everyone saved and alive, so there is that) and make the story that much more personal to me. I reckon after I’ve played the third, I might go through again and do it MY way, without worrying about achievements and the like. I think doing that will give the entire series much more impact for me.

    Awesome preview Lee, you have me salivating for this game!

  6. [...] said that, when we first experienced this full Mass Effect 3 presentation at E3 earlier in the year, it piqued my interest beyond what I thought possible. Perhaps it was the [...]

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